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Issue #1437      25 November 2009

The damage of cultural globalisation

The term “globalisation” is usually associated with trade, foreign investment, capital flow and all the rest. But what about culture, identity, traditions and ways of life – do these things amount to anything?

Globalisation has various manifestations. If viewed strictly in economic terms, the debate delves into trade barriers, protectionism and tariffs. Powerful countries demand smaller countries break down all trade barriers while maintaining a level of protectionism over their own. Smaller countries, knowing that they cannot do much to hide from the hegemonic nature of globalisation, form their own economic clubs, hoping to negotiate fairer deals.

And the economic tug-of-war continues, between diplomacy and threats, dialogue and arm-twisting. This is the side of globalisation with which most of us are familiar. But there is another side of globalisation, one that is similarly detrimental to some countries and profitable to others.

The globalisation of Western culture creates an unbridgeable disadvantage for poorer countries, which lack the means to withstand the takeover of their traditional ways of life by the dazzling, well-packaged and branded “culture” imparted upon them around the clock.

What audiences watch, read and listen to in most countries outside the Western hemisphere is not truly Western culture in the strict definition of the term. It’s a selective brand of culture – a reductionist presentation of art, entertainment, news and so on as platforms to promote ideas that ultimately sell products.

To sell a product, however, the media also sells ideas, often one-sided ones, and creates unjustifiable fascination with ways of life that hardly represent natural progression for many vanishing cultures and communities around the world.

American cable television music channel MTV now has "local" channels and websites across the world – in English. Pictured here: MTV Arabia.

Recently while visiting a Gulf country I saw a few Turkish teenagers begin a shouting match in an internet cafe as they engaged one another in a violent computer game. I tried to mind my own business, but their shrieks of victory and defeat were deafening.

“Kill the terrorist!” one of them yelled in English with a thick Turkish accent.

The Rs in “terrorists” rolled over his tongue unnaturally. For a moment he was an “American” killing “terrorists.”

As I walked out, I glanced at the screen. Among the rubble there was a mosque – or what was left of it. The young Turkish Muslim was congratulated by his friends for his handiwork.

There is nothing wrong with exchange of ideas. Cultural interactions are historically responsible for many great advances in art, science and language, even the evolution of food and much more. But prior to globalisation cultural influences were introduced at a much slower speed. This allowed societies big and small to reflect, consider and adjust to these unique notions over time.

But the globalisation of the media is unfair. It gives no chance for mulling anything over, for determining the benefits or the harms, for any sort of value analysis. News, music and even pornography are beamed directly to all sorts of screens and gadgets. This may sound harmless, but the cultural contradictions eventually morph into conflicts and clashes, in figurative and real senses.

Young people grow, defining themselves according to someone else’s standards, thus the Turkish teenager, temporarily adopting the role of the “American,” blows up his own mosque.

Globalisation is not a fair game.

Those with giant economies get the lion’s share of the “collective” decision-making. Those with more money and a global outlook tend to have influential media, also with a global outlook.

In both scenarios, small countries are lost between desperately trying to negotiate a better economic standing for themselves while hopelessly trying to maintain their cultural identity, which defined their people, generation after generation throughout history.

*Ramzy Baroud is an author and editor of His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada:
A Chronicle Of A People’s Struggle

(Pluto Press, London).

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